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Be ethical when promoting 'green' products and services

By Kim Harrison,

Consultant, Author and Principal of www.cuttingedgepr.com

People around the world have become more concerned about environmental (‘green’) issues. They worry about climate change, greenhouse gas emissions, fuel prices, and the impact that products may have on the environment. In response to this, organizations are turning more and more to environmental or ‘green’ themes to promote their products and services. Environmental claims can be a powerful marketing and public relations tool.

Environmental claims are being made for more products than ever before, ranging from small household items to major whitegoods and appliances. Many consumers consider environmental qualities for a product, such as water and energy efficiency, as a major consideration when evaluating products they wish to purchase.

But ‘green’ claims need to be true – and they need to be accurate. Such claims need to be scientifically sound and can be substantiated. Consumers are entitled to rely on any environmental claims your organization makes and to expect these claims to be truthful.

Not only is this good business, but it is usually required by law. For instance, in my country, Australia, the Trade Practices Act states that businesses must not mislead or deceive consumers in any way. The Act carries large penalties for businesses that stray from these requirements.

Last month the federal government forced Goodyear Tires to apologize to customers and offer refunds on its Eagle LS2000 tire because of the company’s false and misleading marketing hype:

  • The Eagle LS2000 is a revolutionary, environmentally-friendly tire.

  • The tire is designed for minimal environmental impact.

  • The manufacturing process for the tire results in reduced carbon dioxide emissions.

  • The technology used to produce the tire improves fuel economy and reduces the impact on the environment.

This hype was also written in the company’s media release promoting the product, which raises ethical issues about the public relations handling of the claims.
The government found that Goodyear was misleading consumers about the environmental benefits of the tire, which was a breach of the Act.

Goodyear also had to publish a “corrective advertisement” in the daily newspapers of every large city in the nation and also on its website, admitting to the infraction of the law.

These apologies and negative publicity would undoubtedly have affected sales. Goodyear is considered one of the most admired companies, and so negative media coverage would have affected its reputation.

Environmental claims are shaping up to be used even more in the future. Most communicators haven’t been able to refer to guidelines when making claims about this important area, so I go into some detail below.

Guidelines for environmental claims

What should our guidelines be for making environmental claims? Generally a claim should:

  • Be honest and truthful

  • Detail the specific part of the product or process it is referring to

  • Use language that the average person can understand

  • Explain the significance of the benefit

  • Be able to be substantiated

If companies see the market share of a product with environmental advantages increase, they will feel encouraged to do the same in order to compete.

Environmental claims should only be made when there is a genuine benefit or advantage. You should note advertise environmental benefits where they are irrelevant, insignificant or simply advertise the observance of existing law.

Don’t let marketing hype overpower you! If you believe marketing claims about environmental benefits are dubious, then say so. It is better you raise your concern now rather than let a customer sue your organization for making false claims. Insist on proof of environmental benefits.

In my part of the world a company making a fruit juice called Ribena used to claim the drink had 50% more Vitamin C than oranges. Two schoolgirls in New Zealand performed a lab experiment on the drink, and discovered it contained hardly any Vitamin C! The company received huge negative media coverage and was fined heavily for its outrageous claims. The problem would never have surfaced if the company’s PR person had simply said, “Show me the proof” when asked to write promotional material about the product. Or, more tactfully, they could have said, “If a customer challenges this claim in court, what proof do we have?”

Don’t overstate environmental benefits. Avoid implying a product has significant environmental benefits if the benefit is negligible. A claim of “now 50% more recycled content” is misleading if the product only had 1% of recycled product in the first place!

The same principles apply to pictures, symbols, photographs and captions.

Claims should relate to the whole product life cycle. There is no point in promoting a product as being environmentally friendly when disposal at the end of its life cycle will cause an adverse environmental impact.

Claims shouldn’t overstate the level of scientific acceptance of the product. When the scientific basis for your claim is debatable or inconclusive, you should be careful not present the claim as being universally accepted.

Green.’ This term is vague and conveys little information to the consumer apart from the message that your product is in some way less damaging to the environment than others. This word invites consumers to attribute a wide range of meanings to the claim, which risks misleading them.

Environmentally friendly’ or ‘environmentally safe’ are claims that are vague and could potentially mislead consumers into thinking the product causes no harm to the environment in the production, use or disposal. But almost all products have an adverse impact on the environment in their life cycle, and therefore using these phrases is likely to deceive.

Energy efficient.’ Energy efficiency claims should be quantified by comparison with existing benchmarks or rating systems, or otherwise explained in more detail. Simply claiming that a product is ‘energy efficient’ makes it difficult for consumers to compare products, and they may be mislead into drawing wrong conclusions about your product.

Claims that a product is ‘recyclable’ can potentially be dangerous if the product isn’t actually recyclable because consumer may do something with the product under a mistaken impression. You need to verify that the product can be recycled before making such claims.

When making a claim that a product contains recycled material, consumers may believe the product has been through a previous life cycle or it has been recycled by another consumer. But if the material has been recovered from a waste stream during manufacture and reused, this should be made clear by using words like ‘materials reclaimed from manufacturing.’

Companies are increasingly making claims that their products and services are ‘carbon neutral.’ Any such claims should be factually based and not overstated. Such claims should also relate to the total life cycle, not just one part of it such as manufacture because disposal of many products creates pollution of some sort.

When advertising participation in a carbon-neutral program, you need to distinguish between past and future activities. For instance, trees may already have been planted in a reforestation project, which actually had another purpose different from planting trees as carbon offsets.

Terms like ‘renewable’ and ‘green’ energy need to be carefully assessed as well before going public. Sustainable and renewable energy resources are important to many consumers and so it is essential they have accurate information on which to base their purchasing decisions. Any assertions about cost, amounts supplied or associated benefits need to be truthful and correct. For instance, if you promote your energy as ‘green’ or ‘renewable’ you should disclose the proportion of energy obtained from renewable resources if it is less than 100%.

The federal government gives a checklist as a guide when making environmental claims in your promotional work:

  • Avoid using terms like ‘safe’ and ‘friendly’ and photographs or graphics that don’t have relevant captions.

  • Be specific in plain English the beneficial qualities of a product.

  • Link the environmental benefit to a specific part of the product or its production process such as extraction, transportation, manufacture, use, packaging or disposal.

  • Ensure any claims about a product can be substantiated. Think about how you would answer a query about the environmental benefits you are claiming for your product. What scientific authority could you use to justify the basis of your claim?

  • Explain how a product’s qualities are beneficial to the environment. For example, explain how a phosphate-free product is less damaging in river systems because phosphates lead to algal growth, which can clog up and poison rivers.

  • Avoid giving the impression that your product is totally environmentally benign if it isn’t.

  • Use the claim only in an appropriate context or setting. For instance, don’t claim a product isn’t tested on animals if it is a product that would never be tested on animals anyway.

Observing these guidelines is an ethical action on your part.

About the Author

Kim Harrison is a recognized authority in the public relations field. His website, www.cuttingedgepr.com, provides a wealth of informative articles and resources on public relations techniques and management.

 

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